Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hidden in plain sight

That's a theme of quite a bit of my writing about rural poverty (such as here, here and here), and Erik Eckholm reports in today's New York Times on another manifestation of it. In "Albuquerque Journal: On a Dusty Mesa, No Water or Electricity, but Boundless Space," he writes of the Parajito Mesa, outside Albuquerque, where more than 400 families live off the grid in an area never licensed for housing. Whether the area is properly labeled "rural" or not is debatable; the Parajito Mesa is within metropolitan Bernalillo County, population 626,991. But, many aspects of how the area's residents live are suggestive of rural places, including the dirt roads, keeping of animals, informal order, and neighbors' interdependence on one another.

Eckholm further describes the Parajito Mesa's proximity to the state's capital, the 34th largest metropolitan area in the U.S.:
Here is a maze of unnamed dirt roads, with nary a grocery store or barbershop in sight. Adding to the sense of dislocation, Albuquerque’s skyline shimmers, Oz-like, on the horizon, a half-hour’s drive away.
He also notes that the vast majority of Parajito Mesa residents are Latino, and many are undocumented. Scattered over 28 square miles, they are not only lacking electricity, water and improved sanitation, they also have no streets, no mail delivery. But, Eckholm points out, "they are not squatters: residents buy or rent their plots, and the owners pay property taxes, one of the many oddities of a community that is isolated in plain sight." He also describes a coming improvement:
Access to water and electricity has been stymied by a legal mess and a lack of political power in the largely nonvoting community.

* * *

In a small step forward, this month the mesa will finally get its first water supply — a metered spigot at a single site where people can fill their barrels, instead of having to drive anywhere from 10 to 18 miles. Getting even this much took 10 years of organizing residents and pestering state and county officials, a campaign led by Sandra Montes, a former housewife who moved to the mesa in 1997 “without realizing how hard it was going to be,” she said.
This all reminds me of the excellent work of Michelle Wilde Anderson, who has written about exclusion from city services of those on the urban fringe. You can read some of her work here and here.

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